Beijing’s Punk Rock Noodle Restaurant Has a Tangled, Bittersweet Love Story
Opened as a tribute to a departed lynchpin of the Beijing punk scene, the noodle joint is at the center of a bitter ownership tussle that undermines the good intentions behind it.
All photos by Aurelien Foucault.
"This was my husband's favourite whiskey," says Beijing's Punk Rock Noodle restaurant owner Ma Yue, thumping a bottle of Maker's Mark onto the table. "That's why I keep bottles of it lined up beneath his picture."
Ma, clad in a baggy denim jacket with a "Skinhead" patch sewn on an arm, gestures to a photograph behind the bar of a bulky, shaven-headed man gleefully holding a liquor glass aloft.
The man in the photo is Lei Jun: the late frontman of oi! punk rockers Misandau and a lynchpin of the Chinese capital's music scene. Lei died suddenly of a heart attack last May at age 40. He was the owner of Noodle In: a noodle shop in Beijing's bohemian-chic Gulou area that had gradually turned into a makeshift HQ for the city's small punk-loving skinhead subculture of which he was at the heart.
Before he died, Lei was weeks away from rebranding Noodle In as Punk Rock Noodle, a more overtly music-centric restaurant, along with his American friend and business partner Jimi Sides. The night before Lei's death, Sides' family was in Beijing, having flown in from the US. They toasted the new venture over a slap-up meal.
It proved to be Lei's last dinner. After the shock of his death subsided, Ma and Sides regrouped and decided to go ahead with the opening of Punk Rock Noodle in his memory. "Many friends told me about having dreams involving Lei, and how they woke up in tears," says Ma, sunglasses perched on her forehead and knocking back her third glass of whiskey. "I knew that if I kept the restaurant, Lei Jun would be forever remembered. If I separated myself from the outside world, there wouldn't be any chance for me to see these friends," she adds. "They shed tears in front of me, share feelings with me, and we get very drunk. This is where the meaning of the restaurant lies: a remembrance of Lei."
Lei was a forceful character. In 2013, I saw him blast through a captivating oi!-punk-through-a-Ramones-filter Beijing show, churning the previously sedate crowd into a shouty mosh pit. His charismatic presence saturates Punk Rock Noodle, from the Misandao records propped up on shelves to the photos of him glued to the table surfaces to a tattoo of him and his pet bulldog on Ma's arm.
Many staffers at the venue are in bands—a problem for Ma, as they regularly leave the city to go on tour. The atmosphere, stirred by the music-loving staff and a loud oi! punk soundtrack, is rowdy and fun. But it doesn't allude to a bitter business situation that festers between Ma and Sides.
Sides claims that Ma cut him out of the Punk Rock Noodle business shortly after taking huge amounts of investment money from him and his family. He suggests that she has goaded him about suing her when he has asked for his capital back. Ma disputes the amount Sides is due, saying he has refused smaller money offers she feels are fair; Sides says he has spoken to a lawyer about suing. However it plays out, the situation has darkly stained a venture that was supposed to be a purely positive tribute.
For now, though, Ma has got her way: She is running Punk Rock Noodle herself with a focus on dishes carried over from Fei's previous joint. The food may be soured by the tang of bitter legal animosity and a mutilated friendship, but it tastes pretty great. The noodle dishes are highlights but my standout is the traditional stewed beef served as a huge hunk with a gravy and mashed potato moat. It is described on the menu as "cooked by the owner's mother." Throughout the menu, Lei rather than Ma is described as the venue's owner, but the recipe was Ma's mother's.
Another standout, perhaps for its appearance above taste, is the Punk Not Dead dish, inspired by a recent visit to the restaurant by Scottish hardcore band The Exploited before their show at the nearby Mao Livehouse. For the dish, ox tongues and vegetables are arranged to resemble a side view of a head with an enormous mohawk hairdo, mimicking The Exploited's distinctive logo.
Lei had a rebel-rock spirit that The Exploited—who are characterised by their aggressive, anarchistic music, as well as singer Wattie Buchan's impressive mohawk—would have approved of. To Fei and his similarly hair-shorn friends, skinhead meant a sense of style and a love of music, with anti-authoritarian rather than right wing politics.
Keeping with this ethos, the cover art of Misandao's album Proud Of The Way particularly stands out on the wall of Punk Rock Noodle: It's a striking photo showing the Dr. Martens-clad feet of a boot boy on Tiananmen Square. Lei, meanwhile, regularly wore a T-shirt with the slogan "ACAB" on it—"all cops are bastards.
Lei had that shirt on for the 2013 Beijing gig I saw him perform at. During the show, a male audience member climbed on stage and removed his clothes, parading around the stage naked and bending over to show the crowd his anus. Lei carried on bellow-singing for the duration; the next day, panicked authorities attempted to scrub video footage of the incident from websites.
"Lei was like this even as a student," says Ma, who met her husband when they were at school together. "Chinese schools tend to categorise students into only two kinds: good and bad. He fell into the latter category. He had a good sense of language and writing; the only thing 'bad' was his rebellion. But the more you tried to stop him from doing something, the more likely he was to do it.
"He always tried to vent his anger toward police or the government. He couldn't do this by his actions, so he chose to do it through music and attitude. He advocated that we should have our own ideas."
Lei was frustrated by China's school system, which serves to indoctrinate students into communism and squashes free expression. Ma says that the couple refrained from having children because they didn't want to bring up a kid in an environment of authoritarian state control and shrouded by issues such as heavy pollution. "We can't have fresh air, water, or safe food, and every time you turn on TV, all you see is lies," she says. "Due to all these factors, Lei wanted to leave China."
Instead, Ma claims, Lei's presence now rests at Punk Rock Noodle. "I have no other choice but to show people that this is still Lei's restaurant, even though he has left us," she says.
There's no doubt that Lei would approve of his widow's efforts to keep his legacy alive. But he surely would have hated that a venue in his name was the cause of such a bitter fallout between two people he was close to.
Ma is unrepentant. She pours another glass of whiskey from the bottle, which is now almost empty. "This is not a place to cry, but to drink," she says.